Wednesday, October 15, 2008

“Mendoza, gateway to the Andes” (and so much more)

(Wednesday 15 Oct– Day ) (Where am I now: In the lounge of Hostel Independencia, in Mendoza, watching Erin Brokovic with two Swedish backpackers)(What is the time now: 21:08 pm on Wed 15th Oct, What am I listening to: The TV)

It’s my second day in Mendoza and I can only say that I am truly impressed by the place. I cannot describe in words (but I will try) the positive vibe I got from the city the moment I got here. After a delayed flight, I checked in Hostel Independencia, which is perfectly positioned next to Plaza (guess what?) Independencia. The place itself is great as far as hostels go. It’s an old building in 3 levels with more than 10 rooms and busy busy with backpackers and other travelers. Staff is mega friendly, the place is clean and they are also pretty organized in helping you out with excursions and tips.

I woke up yesterday (Monday) just before 10 am and made my way slowly to the breakfast area and the out into town. I don’t know if it’s me or Argentina has so many public holidays but it was (again!) just like in Santa Fe a public holiday. The city seemed deserted since all the shops were closed and as I found out, most Mendocinos (people of Mendoza) were away. A cloudy day, not helping my photos, still left me undaunted to discover the city that is supposed to be in the heart of Argentina’s wine country.

Water is life

Mendoza is the nicest city I’ve visited in Argentina and one of the most beautiful I’ve seen overall. No, it’s not breathtaking architecture or stunning night life that make her stand out, it’s just the way it is built and the magnificent system of irrigation it has. Let’s start with the basics (that I learned on my Monday 4-hour city tour). Mendoza is built on desert land. If you see it from a satellite photo, around it there is absolutely nothing. I got the proof today when I went out on an excursion but more about this a bit later. Mendoza has 200mm of rain a year (that is nothing if you compare it to any other “normal” place). Rio Mendoza however has been harnessed and literally passes everywhere under the city. Through a complex irrigation system which you see in almost every street, either as open aqueducts or underground channels, the city is fed with water. All its streets are lined on both sides with beautiful, tall, leafy trees that in summer provide the essential shade that makes this city livable. This city has 900,000 people and there’s 1 tree per 3 citizens. That is really a lot of trees we’re talking about.

It also has parks. A lot of them, with one covering more than 200 hectares, right at the side of town, it even has a lake in it, and pathways for running and rollerblading and taking your kids out etc, a runners dream, I saw so many people running in a forest-like environment.
It is also perfectly designed from an urban/civic standpoint. Every block measures 100x100m meters and all roads are perfectly vertical/parallel to each other, it is virtually impossible to get lost in Mendoza. Even I (the map illiterate) managed to get lost only once… All its government buildings are located in one side of town, so people don’t need to move around the city to deal with their errands that involve the public sector.

Did I mention the beautiful wine? Did I mention the fact that it is close to ski resorts, that it’s the gateway to Chile and close to one of the biggest and most famous Reserve parks, the Aconcagua? So much to say, if you are not convinced, check some of the photos. If you are still doubtful, fly over to see it for yourselves. You will thank me for it.

Be a hero. Not for one but for three countries. Be like San Martin.
If you stay long enough in Argentina and visit a few cities it becomes obvious after a while. Every city has a major street called San Martin. It might even have a big park, like Mendoza. San Martin is everywhere, even on the 5 Pesos banknote, which might not be the biggest denomination but it is one of the most widely used.Here’s what I learned and I promise you I didn’t refer to any book or website, I’m writing what I’ve heard the past days from tourist guides, Argentineans, and all the panels in front of historical buildings.
San Martin was born in Argentina in the Rio de la Plata Area around the end of the 18th century and when he was very young he went to Spain where he got trained as a military officer in the cavalry. He fought under the Spanish flag but didn’t like monarchy or the colonies so eventually he came back to South America to fight against the Spanish to free the colonies. He organized an army, which he then moved through the Andes under extremely difficult circumstances, completely took the Spanish by surprise with this move and eventually is recognized as the liberator of Peru, Chile and Argentina.

Well done. Pretty cool, I don’t know many people that are recognized more than one sovereign states as their hero despite being from a different country.The reson I am writing this is that any tour you take, especially in Mendoza is full of San Martin stories, they keep him very dear to their heart, have a huge monument for him, named their biggest park and the most busy commercial street. More about him while I describe the next part which is my trek through (part of) the Andes.

Beautiful Andes: for me, Che Guevara and Brad Pitt
It was an early wake up this morning - had to be ready at 07:30, a small price to pay to get a chance to see the Andes from as close as you could get with a normal bus. I booked this trip with the hostel, they pick you up and give you a tour of a few highlights on the way to the Andes. You actually drive 200km away from Mendoza, into what is called Routa 8, the national road that connects Argentina with Chile. I was hoping for a bit more of an active excursion but nevertheless, this was worth it. The ascent is also pretty exciting. Mendoza is at 700m above sea level and you end up close to 3000m at the highest point we visited. Ok, if you live in Geneva and ski on the weekends it is nothing spectacular but it was still very different.

We started by exiting the city, far away you could see the snowy mountain ridge of Aconcagua, the highest peak on this continent. The scenery was truly amazing. The first things that strikes you is the fact that indeed, outside Mendoza there’s not too much vegetation, the place is pretty arid, dry with rocky mountains and ridges. As you moved higher up, you started to see patches of snow closer, some even on the side of the road but what was unmistakably different to a spring drive up the Alps is that nothing was green, this is dry land, almost nothing (except some stubborn bushes) grows here. I’ve added some photos with comments below to show you what I mean.After a complex narrow trail of road and tunnel we stopped at a lake that was created by building a damn & filling the basin, this is part of the water management system that gives life to Mendoza. On the bottom lies the village of Poterillos, victim to man’s progress (they moved the village to a mountain range a few km further away…) Man vs. Nature: 1-0

The place we were driving through, before heading up towards the mountain ridge is called Uspallata and here’s an interesting fact. Quite a few films have been made in this region, mostly because of the diverse and beautiful landscape and the low cost. So, remember all the snowy shots of Brad Pitt trying to tough it out for “7 years in Tibet”, well it was filmed here. Same for a part of the “Motorcycle Diaries”, the story of Che Guevara. And I shouldn’t mention my newest hero, San Martin. No, no movie has been made about him (at least to my knowledge) but a lot of the spots we stopped have to do with him. So in a photo where you see a little bridge (and me smilling next to it)- that’s the bridge some of San Martin’s troops used to head into Chile. One by one, single column. The tour guide says that they celebrate San Martin not on the first victorious battle but on the actual crossing his soldiers made because they lost more men during that passage that in the frist battle with the Spaniards (or the Crown as he politically correctly said not to avoid any chance of offending the Spanish tourists joining the tour). The tour by the way was all in Spanish, I was very happy to be able to understand even the jokes he made a long the way…

Next stop, Puente del Inca (Inca’s bridge) a most amazing natural formation of rock next to a warm water spring – apparently something the Incas first discovered and has been used since recently. Most amazing part of the story (apart from the virew) is the fact that until the 70’s this was a fully operating spa that was completely wiped off the map due to a huge avalanche. A photo held by Sergio (our guide) shows the place in the 70’s where in the background you now see only ruins. Man vs. Nature: 1-1

Moving up, literally. We stopped to admire the view of the Aconcagua mountain range. Aconcagua rises +6800 meters above sea level and is the highest peak in Latin America. It is also called “El pequeño ocho-mil” (the little 8 thousand) simply because the atmospheric conditions and lack of vegetation make climbers feel they are climbing an 8km peak. The shots you see are taken 20km away from the base of the mountain, right where the National Park starts. In the rather naive question of a Spanish tourist: “Hay telecabina para subir?” (Is there a telecabin to go up?) our guide answered that the expedition to reach the peak takes usually 15 days and not everyone actually makes it… Man vs. Nature: 1-2

Last stop was lunch. But not until we reached the “most western part of Argentina on this road” literally a few kilometers away from the border with Chile. Snow everywhere, cold wind; nothing could make you guess you were in spring time. I was so excited from the trip. Happy and exhausted, we made our way back to Mendoza, some of us almost half-asleep. You know what is the best part?

I am actually taking the exact same road in a week’s time when I cross over into Chile on my way to Santiago officially saying goodbye to the first country in my trip.
Can’t wait to see the Andes again even if I am not Brad Pitt…

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